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Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, similarities & differences

October 19th, 2009 Posted in Classical, MUSIC

The three composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, are considered the triumvirate of composers of music in the classical style. Indeed, these three men gave us what is by far, the greatest music of their time. Schubert is sometimes added to these three names, though I won’t discuss him here for the following reasons. Schubert composed mostly in the new Romantic style, rather than the classical style, until the last few years of his very short life. He left us with some great large-scale masterpieces, though not nearly as many as the other three composers named above.

I want to focus mainly on the differences between the three composers, but first I should briefly discuss the similarities. The classical style is a style in which form plays a more important part than earlier or later styles. The use of sonata form is almost the defining characteristic of the style .(See my blog on sonata form). Sonata form was so pervasive that it invaded every genre of music of the time, even opera and church music. The three composers under discussion here each created works that are a hybrid of other forms and sonata form. Rondo form and variation form were often blended with sonata form.

To put it simply, sonata form begins with simplicity and tonal stability, builds in tension towards a middle section, and reduces the complexity and tension in the last section. The climax is always in the middle. That is where the most complex textures are usually found, as well as the most far-ranging key changes, and the most agitated rhythmic patterns.

Haydn did not create sonata form, but he was a master of it. His grasp of form was excellent, and at the same time, he took a few liberties with his conception of it. Haydn was fond of the false recapitulation. A false recapitulation is a device that can be used near the end of the development section of a sonata form movement. It is a way of fooling the listener into thinking the recapitulation has begun, when it in fact has not begun, and the music is still in the harmonically unstable area of the development section. Of course such a thing as a false recapitulation must be brief in order to be effective. Very soon after fooling the listener, the music will be in the actual recapitulation.

Aside from a false recapitulation, Haydn was fond of surprising the listener with many unexpected turns and twists. Sudden key changes, unexpected shifts of rhythm or harmony, a phrase that leads into something totally different than what is expected; these are a few items in the bag of tricks that Haydn had up his sleeve. He was a genius at surprising the listener with unexpected things, yet still adhering to sonata form. His music is full of idiosyncrasies and eccentric ideas. He experimented constantly with new ways of surprising listeners. He liked to startle the listener with a sudden and unexpected rest, or a fermata that unexpectedly breaks the action. He liked to closely juxtapose remote keys, suddenly changing from one key to a distant one, with no preparation. Mozart was more apt to prepare the listener for the intrusion of a remote key by gradually introducing it.

Haydn was fond of taking a simple motif or germ in one of the themes of a movement and using it as sort of a springboard from which emerges many different musical ideas throughout the movement. Many of his movements are monothematic. In fact one French critic wrote that Haydn only needs one theme to create a symphonic movement while lesser composers needed several. Mozart was certainly not a “lesser composer,” yet he was fond of using more than one or two themes in a movement. Mozart had a knack of using several themes in one movement, yet at the same time, creating a movement that in no way lacks in unity.  The first movement of his so-called Paris Symphony (no.32) has a wealth of themes, yet never sounds diffuse or lacking in unity.

It has been pointed out in many books that Beethoven liked to combine Haydn’s monothematic technique with Mozart’s use of multiple themes, and that he achieved this by way of creating a second theme that sounds like a variation or outgrowth of the first theme. There is some truth in this statement, though like all sweeping generalities, it is an inadequate statement. Some of Beethoven’s movements can be analyzed in that manner, such as the opening movement of Symphony no 5, but Beethoven’s methods were quite varied and diverse.

Mozart is a contradiction in that he was more conservative and followed the “rules” much more than Haydn, yet his music is incomparable. Haydn was very much given to surprising, and even shocking the listener, yet Mozart rarely did this. His music is more regular and well behaved. Yet within the confines of the boundaries he seemingly imposed on himself, Mozart left us many incomparable masterpieces.

Haydn was apt to present his themes in the recapitulation in a different order than they were presented in the exposition, and sometimes did not present his themes verbatim in the recapitulation. Mozart rarely reordered his themes, and almost always repeated them verbatim. Mozart could afford a more unaltered repetition of his themes because his themes tended to be full-blown lyrical melodies.

When it comes to piano trios, string quartets, and symphonies, Haydn left us more great masterpieces than Mozart, though the last three symphonies by Mozart are exquisite masterpieces, equal to or surpassing any symphony of Haydn.. Of course it isn’t fair to compare the oeuvre of a man who died just before his 36th birthday with that of a man who lived to be 77.

In opera Mozart was unsurpassed. Haydn openly admitted that Mozart’s operas were far greater than his own. The classical concerto being so close in style to the classical opera, composers who were successful in one were usually successful in the other. This goes a long way toward explaining why Mozart was a composer of such great concertos, while Haydn’s concertos, for the most part, are mediocre works like his operas. The one concerto by Haydn, by the way, that I find to be a great masterpiece is his trumpet concerto. Though more, conservative than the usual work of Haydn, his trumpet concerto is a wonderful piece and can easily take its place beside the great trumpet concerto by Hummel.

In church music Mozart was far greater than Joseph Haydn. Haydn once said that his brother Michael was a better composer of church music than he himself was. If you listen to Haydn’s masses for the Catholic Church you will see that they are really symphonies with choir. There are no stylistic differences between his masses and his symphonies. He did not have a thorough grasp of the baroque ecclesiastic style, though Mozart had a deep understanding of Bach, Handel, and other masters of baroque church music. During his two trips to London after his retirement from Esterhazy, Haydn became familiar with the great oratorios of Handel. Out of this new understanding of Handel, Haydn gave us his two great oratorios, “Creation” and “Seasons,” both of which, in my opinion, far surpass the greatness of his masses, though in his very last mass, he finally achieved a satisfactory unification of symphonic and choral styles.

Beethoven was influenced a great deal by both Haydn and Mozart. He took a touch of this and a touch of that from both of them, and infused his own unique personality into his music. To my ear, it seems that Beethoven was influenced much more by Haydn than Mozart, though a few of his early works are obviously modeled after works by Mozart. From Haydn, Beethoven got his love of the false recapitulation. Also from Haydn, comes Beethoven’s love of the sudden and unexpected pause and the unexpected fermata. Beethoven was even more fond of sudden surprises than was Haydn. And Haydn’s high-spirited wit was certainly not lost on him. Musical humor in the style of Haydn is found in almost every genre of music that Beethoven composed in, from piano sonatas, to string quartets and symphonies, he is sometimes deadly serious, and sometimes overtly comic. His symphony no 4 and symphony no. 8 are replete with Haydnesque humor and wit.

The idea of using a small germ or motif to generate the musical energy of an entire movement is something that Beethoven learned from Haydn. The opening movement of Symphony no. 5 is a good example, but many examples of such a thing can be found in his late works.

Essentially Beethoven used the forms that he inherited from Haydn and Mozart, ie sonata form, rondo, variation form, and expanded these forms. He increased the length and intensity of the development section. Beethoven had a tremendous variety of ways of creating a sonata-form movement.   He would sometimes be rather terse, going quickly from his first theme to his second theme, and then closing the exposition soon after presenting the second theme. Sometimes, like Mozart, he would use a group of first themes in the tonic key, and then present a group of themes in another key, usually the dominant. Sometimes his sonata-form movements are very tightly argued. Other times they are somewhat looser in conception. The variety Beethoven created within the context of sonata form is astounding!

Late in his life Beethoven became much more interested in counterpoint. He especially became much more interested in fugues. He also became more interested in variation form, using it sometimes in movements to piano sonatas and string quartets. Indeed the finale of his Symphony no. 9 can be thought of as a sort of combination of sonata form and theme and variations.

It is hard to describe the music of Beethoven. For me, I would say he had essentially three main modes of expression. There is his playful and humorous side. There is his dramatic side. His music could sometimes be so dramatic and powerful that is makes your skin crawl. And there is his dreamy, introspective side. I realize that breaking down Beethoven’s variety of expression into three categories is rather facile, even faulty, yet I can’t help but do it. Sorry about that.

44 Responses to “Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, similarities & differences”

  1. Wow. Thanks for that interesting and informative post. I always feel glad whenever I encounter people who have the same passion and love for music like what I actually have. These three powerful men in music, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven play a great and vital role in bringing music to all of us – appreciating its beauty and sharing its fun as well. Their influences in composing a wide array of music have moved different people with various cultures and customs together and closer. These have been powerful avenues to understand cultures and bridge the gaps among nations. Their music and compositions though quite complex are still considered as today’s pride. Let their legacies live on. Again, thanks and more power. See you around.

  2. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Thank you Piano Teacher, for commenting on this post.
    Jeffrey B. Langlois

  3. Thanks so much for this wonderful article. I wish there were more writers like you on the web!

    I wanted to call your attn to a typo in the title (Haydn, rather than Hadyn), just so that it doesn’t affect search results. I would hate for this article to not appear in the top of search results because of a typo. It’s too good to miss.

    Thanks again.

  4. Geejay Arriola says:

    Thanks a lot, Bianca. I just went in to correct it for Jeff. :)

  5. Why do you say that the Mozart Symphony no. 40 in g minor is monothematic?
    I have always thought that the second theme began in Bb major at ms. 44 in the exposition and in g minor in ms. 227 in the recapitulation.
    That seems to be the general consensus of opinion.

    I see what you mean about Beethoven borrowing Haydn’s monothematic form, though. The two themes in the Appassionata Sonata seem to be a lot alike to me.

    Although the same can be said for the Mozart Bb major piano sonata, K. 570. Perhaps Mozart also borrowed the idea from Haydn.

  6. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    You are correct and I’m not sure why I made that remark about no. 40 first movement being monothematic. I have corrected my error. Yes, I agree that the two themes in the first movement of the Appassionata Sonata seem very similar. Quite often Beethoven’s second theme sounds as if it was derived from the first one. The first movement of the fifth symphony provides another example.
    As for Mozart borrowing ideas from Haydn, there is no doubt. Those two would borrow ideas from each other.
    Thanks for visiting the site. I must apologize for taking so long to replying to your remark. I’ve been very busy for so long and haven’t been on the site in a while.

  7. What do you say to those who suggest that Mozart is the superior of Beethoven, and that Mozart is the greatest composer of all? I disagree with this view, BTW.

  8. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    I would say that in some ways Mozart was superior to Beethoven, such as in opera, for instance. And despite the greatness of Beethoven’s mass in D and the finale of the ninth symphony, I will admit that Mozart was a better composer of choral music. Also I would readily admit that Mozart’s counterpoint was better than Beethoven’s. Some would argue that Mozart’s music seems more natural, less contrived than Beethoven’s, but I would disagree with that. Some will point out the beauty of Mozart’s melodies and will say that Beethoven could not create good melodies, but there are many examples of great melodies by Beethoven (theme of Eroica Variations, slow movement of sonata #8, all three movements of the Spring Sonata, are just a few of many examples). Beethoven was unique. Beethoven expanded the classical forms well beyond what Haydn and Mozart had done. His music is incomparable. I find it hard to say of Mozart and Beethoven that one was better than the other. Neither was better, just different. They lived in different times and were inspired in different ways.

  9. Thank you for your considered opinion on this. 25 years ago I would have said Mozart was the greater of the two, but now it is Bach and Beethoven. We can’t just speak about ‘melody’ or ‘structure’, I think. It has to be that transcendent something extra – that indefinable quality of Beethoven which goes straight to the human heart. For me, Mozart is the ethereal, restrained, elegant and theatrical composer par excellence: Beethoven is the Mensch, the man who is able to get to the core of things through dialogue – real dialogue, even when a single instrument. Think about the internal dialogue in those masterful late piano sonatas and the miraculous string quartets. It makes perfect sense: a man can’t hear so he enjoys his ‘conversations’ internally and vicariously through musical discourse. I hear it and respond to it as with no other composer, except JSB and his ‘conversational’ counterpoint. Thanks for the opportunity.

  10. Angela Tuazon says:

    Thanks for writing this.. :) )

  11. Angela Tuazon says:

    But, can I ask you if who was really the greatest one of them? is it Mozart, Beethoven or Haydn?
    I really need to find out. ^_^

  12. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    I’m glad you like it.

  13. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    I would not place any one of those three composers above the other two. They each had their strengths and weaknesses and I would place them all on the same level. I’ve never been fond of making judgmental comparisons between apples and oranges.

  14. taylor bradshaw says:

    what are your thoughts on similarities and or differences on Mozart’s Symphony #40 in G, minor K. 550 vs Haydn’s Surprise symphony #94 in G major. I would love some insight from someone as knowledgeable as yourself. Thanks Taylor…

  15. taylor bradshaw says:

    That was the first movement for mozart and second movement of Haydn’s in question.

  16. Peter Cluytens says:

    This is remarkable. Most people who are in classical music even don’t notice the difference between J.Haydn and W.A. Mozart. There is indeed a way to distinguish. As you analyse it well. I personally am looking to find an answer to the intrigueing question, how did Mozart compose. What makes his composing ability different from e.g. Haydn, or Beethoven. What I found, what makes Mozart a different composer, is that variation on popular, existing themes as his own mozartian themes and the drive to put into his music a cadance, what I mean an impulse, a motion, as that of a horsemilll or a horsewalk or again a turquish march as in Jona Lewies Stop the cavalry and then again a very romantic ‘say goodby’ theme. Mozart was – as far as I see it – a melodyfinder, but rather a gifted, creative man, who could create original music by variing common musical material in such a simple, almost childish way, that sets to tears, that is by the fact it sticks close to the natural note and chord following order, so that both audience and executing musicians can continue without the score.
    My idea. My blog on ‘How Mozart composes’ is in flemish, my mothertonghue. END.

  17. Rich Farris says:

    Jeff, I have a rather abstract question for you, since your music history is so good. It has been a theory of mine that “modern thinking” or “modern creativity” began with Beethoven. I alway sensed that Mozart marked the end, as perhaps the peak culmination of the Baroque period, whereas Beethoven ushered in the beginning of modernity – in the history of creativity in music. Do you think my generalization makes any sense from your perspective? Or do you prefer a different demarcation?

  18. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been very busy. I think it’s more accurate to say that J.S. Bach represents the culmination of the Baroque period. Mozart and Haydn represent the full flowering of the classical style, and Beethoven represents the expansion and extreme expression of the classical style. Some people see Beethoven as a bridge between the classical and Romantic styles, but actually Beethoven composed with very little influence of that style, which was in its formative years during his life. I see Brahms more as the beginning of modern thinking or modern creativity in the realm of music. Anyone else out there care to comment on this?

  19. It’s interesting that people struggle to label Beethoven.
    I believe at one point he said that content should determine the form. This seems to indicate a frustration having to contain ideas inside a form. More than expanding forms he began breaking them. Perhaps this liberated and inspired romantic composers, and why some consider him a bridge composer.

  20. It’s been a long time since music history class, but I recall very fuzzily that there was a device employed by Haydn that Mozart never used and once you identified it you could easily differentiate them. Maybe a type of bass line?
    Listening tests were a breeze after learning that, but I’ve long since forgotten the term.
    If anyone knows what I’m talking about I’d be grateful for clarification!

  21. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Donald, I too find it interesting that people (myself included) still struggle to label Beethoven. He is impossible to label, to put into a pigeon hole. But still we try. You say that more than expanding forms he began breaking them. I only see him breaking form in his C#-minor quartet, and in his Mass in D-major. In his other works, other than tweaking the form here and there, he did not break the classical forms, but he expanded them. And he created hybrids of sonata form and rondo form as well as hybrids of sonata form and variation form.

  22. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Hmmm, maybe you’re thinking of the false recapitulation. Haydn was fond of using it, but Mozart did not employ that device as far as I can remember.

  23. Tom Andrews says:

    And then there is Schubert.

  24. Interesante. Posiblemente esté más veces por este blog .

  25. Jeffrey B Langlois says:


  26. Great article. I’m huge on piano music and I’ve always much preferred Haydn’s sonatas but Mozart’s concertos. You’ve helped me understand why. With Haydn, the ideas just keep coming at you, almost like ADD — like you say, he’s full of surprises, very inventive. But Mozart, like you say, is a melody maker and he truly knows how to milk every bit of feeling from a tune. And that he approached concerto writing like opera writing explains why I find his concertos so absorbing. I ramble. You didn’t. Good piece!

  27. Jeffrey B Langlois says:


  28. Nicole Murray, Music Student says:

    This has deeply interested me and you let me understand a deeper meaning of these three amazing composers! I agree completely that each of the three are in no way comparable in terms of their composition, each bring their own uniqueness and inspiration to all their listeners with their beautiful music.

  29. Christer Samuelsson says:

    Given that
    1) Prokofiev explicitly stated that his Classical Symphony is how he thought Haydn might write a symphony in the prevailing style of the time;
    2) Brahms readily admitted that his first symphony is a giant homage to Beethoven (it is often called Beethoven’s tenth);
    and listening to Beethoven’s first two symphonies, I believe that
    1) his first one is Haydn’s 105th;
    2) his second one is Mozart’s 42nd;
    in the sense of how he thought they might write a symphony if they were him.

  30. I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This piece of
    writing posted at this site is actually good.

  31. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Thank you.

  32. There is definately a lot to learn about this issue.

    I really like all of the points you have made.

  33. Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful article. Many thanks for providing this info.

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  35. Sebastiaan B says:

    Hey, I’m writing an essay on those composers. This article has helped me a lot, thank you! Have you got any information about their impact on society and the way of thinking? And what was the role of Vienna in that period?

  36. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    Hi Sebastiaan. Sorry I took so long to reply. I’ve been rather busy. Your question is an interesting one. I can’t tell you much about the social impact of these composers outside of Mozart’s operas. Mozart’s three Italian comedy operas which he wrote using libretti by his friend Lorenzo DaPonte, broke new ground stylistically, but also socially. Prior to Mozart, aristocrats were always depicted as noble, with high ideals and pure morals. Any negative characteristics were not given to them, but to peasants. Figaro broke new ground in depicting the count as immoral and unfaithful to his wife. Mozart went even further in Don Giovanni, depicting a noble man whose sexual debauchery and treachery is the main point of the opera. Cosi Fan Tutti is similar in that regard. I’ll ponder your question some more and see if I can think of something else to add.

  37. Hi. To me, Beethoven´s music is just stunning. A mix of creativity, passion, talent, absolutely unique, yet universal. Music in Big words.

  38. Great article, and great comments!

    So many fine composers. One topic that is interesting to me is the context of listening to music. If I am at home, relaxing, with my stereo system with nothing else to do… Beethoven! The emotions just overwhelm me. It’s perfect.

    But at the office, when you would like some music to enhance your day, Mozart. It’s easy and melodic, but rarely profound (with a few notable exceptions).

    I love Bach too, but find the baroque style can sometimes be too agitated. His unfinished piece seems so beautiful. What are his best slow pieces?

  39. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    That’s an interesting question, “What are Bach’s best slow pieces?” There are a few nice slow movements to some of his concertos. Some of the slower preludes in The Well Tempered Clavier and beautiful. The slow movement to The Italian Concerto (not a true concerto) was cited by Leonard Bernstein as being the piece that first got him interested in music as a child. I would say his best slow pieces are the various chorale arrangements that are found in most of his religious music. He was the consummate master of arranging old German chorales. The B-minor Mass has no chorales but opens with a beautiful slow movement. His two passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and many of his cantatas contain stunningly beautiful chorale arrangements. Most of those are not his original melodies, but his harmony and voice leading is superb in those arrangements. He always created a bass line that has as much melodic interest as the chorale melody, which is almost always in the soprano. I’ll mention one more instrumental piece. The “air” from the orchestral suite #3 in D is very beautiful. It is usually heard out of context and in the 19th century arrangement known as “Air on the G-string.

  40. Yes, the slow movement of the Italian Concerto is one of my favorites! Sublime.

  41. A very good article but may I ask a question:
    What are the three composers’ best pieces?

  42. Jeffrey B Langlois says:

    I’ve never had any inclination to pick out what I believe to be the best piece by a composer, though others will argue about these things. People will argue all day long about what Beethoven’s greatest masterpiece is. Some say it’s his C-sharp Minor quartet while others say it’s his Mass in D-major. Some would say it’s his 9th Symphony or the Diabelli Variations. As for Mozart, he composed masterpieces in every genre of late eighteenth century music, but if I was forced to pick one I guess I would say “The Marriage of Figaro.” With Haydn it’s even harder to single out one piece as being his greatest. He composed so many great piano trios and string quartets! As for his symphonies I would definitely say that the last 17 symphonies (#88 thru #104) are his greatest symphonies. There are some nice ones prior to those, but his late symphonies are much more polished than the earlier ones. His two oratorios “Creation” and “The Seasons” are certainly great works. In short I would say that I find it extremely difficult to single out one or two pieces by any composer and call them his greatest masterpieces.

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  44. so…years ago when I was on the road more, I listened to Haydn – I thought he was it -

    then…I came to realize that the ‘youngster’ Mozart was’ The Beatles’ of classical music – the best -

    then…I took my mother to the Boston Symphony and heard Beethoven’s 6th symphony (my personal favorite) – so I started listening to more Beethoven and decided that it’s just possible that he might be as good as Mozart -

    I think I eventually found the best three of all time -

    ps – Rossini is truly fun to listen to…

    great website with some great writing – thank you, Jeffrey

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